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10 years after Katrina

Charters transform New Orleans schools, and teachers

David Brancaccio and Katie Long Aug 12, 2015
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It’s been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina and the flood-of-floods struck New Orleans. In the following decade, the city has transformed it public schools, housing and business community. Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio traveled to the city to explore what these vast changes mean for New Orleans and the country. 


 

Bethaney Charles in middle school.

Bethaney Charles in middle school. 

 After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans fired just about everybody working in its failing public schools and embarked on a wholesale switch to charter schools. Today, we’ll examine what happened to the teachers and one student, Bethaney Charles, whom I met while reporting for my old PBS TV show “NOW” just after the storm. 

“On the first day we had a lot of homework, and we had long school hours,” then 11-year-old Bethaney told me. “I thought, boy, it’s gonna be a long day, and it’s not going to be interesting.” At the time, she had just entered a new charter school set up after Katrina by the nonprofit Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP.

“What I like about KIPP is the way they teach us,” 11-year-old Bethaney said, “it makes you stay awake.” During that 2006-2007 school year, I found her KIPP middle school — KIPP Believe — crisply regimented, with tidy lines of students trooping to class.

One dominant symbol back then was a flag that read, “Class of 2014,” the far off year these kids were expected to launch into college. To accomplish this with so many students so behind in their studies required teachers who could handle some very long school days. Bethaney, now 19, remembers teachers being at her charter deep into the evening. 

Bethaney Charles, now 19.

Bethaney Charles, now 19. 

“Sometimes 8, 9 [o’clock] — they work extremely late to get prepared for the next day,” Bethaney recalls. Like many of the New Orleans charters, KIPP hired some newbie instructors out of, for instance, the nonprofit Teach for America. These are often recent college grads without traditional training in education. 

“It was easier to connect with them and be comfortable with the younger teachers,” Bethaney says. Tulane economics professor Douglas Harris, director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans has seen the statistics. 

“There was this massive influx of people who wanted to come, and they were willing to work really long hours, and they were really talented people,” Harris says. But he also notes, “turnover has just about doubled since pre-Katrina.”

Holley Bendtsen, a 10th-grade teacher at Landry-Walker high school with decades of experience, sees herself as a career educator, in contrast to this new, more transient teacher population. 

“They come in and they are working so hard, but its all so rough,” Bendtsen says. “There’s no way you can prepare anybody for it, you just have to live it.” Furthermore, many good veteran teachers who may have stayed in the New Orleans school system left the city. She says one of her former colleagues is now a school superintendent back east, another is a teacher of the year several times over in North Carolina. Bendtsen says the brain drain she witnessed from New Orleans was a real loss.

“They found a way to get rid of the union,” Bendtsen says, who left teaching for a few years after the storm before returning to New Orleans’ schools. “They got rid of such a huge part of the black middle class, those female teachers, head of households, well-educated people.”

Holley Bendtsen describes what it was like looking for a teaching job in New Orleans after the mass layoffs:

Lorraine Jones teaches a lesson prior to Katrina.

Lorraine Jones teaches a lesson prior to Katrina.

When Katrina hit, early education specialist Lorraine Jones had a new crop of pre-K students at Helen S. Edwards Elementary School in the city’s low-income Ninth Ward, where many kids came into school needing special attention. She says her classroom management skills were honed through formal study and experience. 

“Children have to be children. You model the behavior you want, and kids will come around,” Jones says, “but don’t come in with the attitude that you know better how to work with these kids.”

Jones was not rehired, she says, adding to the all the turbulence endured by the young students she knew so well. 

“We provided stability for these kids. These people who came in new, a lot of them don’t even stay the full time,” Jones says. “They sign that little contract saying, ‘I will work for two years or whatever.’ Some of them leave after a year.”

Lorraine Jones describes her experience trying to win back her job as a pre-K teacher:

Lorraine Jones

Lorraine Jones

In part two of this series, we’ll meet one of the new teachers and look more closely at the data on New Orleans’ charter experiment. But what about former 5th-grader Bethaney Charles, whom I met after the flood?

She says students in her school, which eventually expanded into a charter high school, were told to apply to at least nine colleges. She went for more. 

“I was accepted in all, all my 11 schools,” Charles says. She chose Dillard University, the noted private liberal arts campus in New Orleans.

She’s starting her sophomore year in the coming days, studying nursing with a focus on anesthesiology.

“I did some research on nurse anesthetists, and once I saw the amount of money that they made,” she says she thought, “I’m going to pursue that.”

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